A visitor to the British Labour Party conference in Manchester could be forgiven for thinking he had blundered onto the set of an avant-garde staging of Macbeth, and not just because Prime Minister

Gordon Brown

‘s inner circle–and a number of his enemies–speak in Scottish accents. After a year that saw Labour’s eleven-point lead over the Tories turn into a twenty-point deficit, the shadow of political death hung over every conversation, from the gallows humor on display at fringe meetings to the constant back-room talk of knifings and decapitation. One prospective Labour candidate, wondering aloud whether Brown’s removal as party leader would help his own fast-fading chances for election, actually turned to me and said, “‘Twere well it were done quickly.”

Not all of the prime minister’s difficulties are of his own making. The run on

Northern Rock

, a British bank brought down by the credit crunch, and the skyrocketing prices of food and oil, were arguably circumstances beyond his control. But when Brown backed out of a snap election last fall for fear of losing a chunk of his majority, the media–and the public–seemed to turn against him. A bill allowing terrorist suspects to be held for forty-two days without trial and the government’s decision to double the tax rate for Britain’s working poor–two issues that allowed the Tories to stand on Labour’s left–created huge self-inflicted wounds in the party’s base.

Only the disarray among his Labour rivals allowed Brown to hang on, hoping, like Mr. Micawber, that “something will turn up.” In fact, it was the sharp downward turn on Wall Street that gave the prime minister his stay of execution. Though ostensibly aimed at the youthful

David Cameron

, Brown’s jibe “This is no time for a novice” also skewered

David Miliband

, the 43-year-old foreign secretary, who has emerged as Brown’s most dangerous rival.

Staking his future on the issue of economic competence is a risky strategy, though. On September 29 the Tories promised to freeze the widely hated council tax for two years. And if Britain, whose banks are rotten with American subprime derivatives, follows the US economy over a cliff, voters may decide that Labour’s “intensely relaxed” approach to market regulation deserves much of the blame. It was Brown, after all, who kept Britain out of the euro. Moreover, the prime minister does not have the option of a Paulson-scale bailout. The assets of the four largest London banks amount to four times the country’s GDP.

Why should Americans, caught up in our own electoral drama, care about British politics? For all his–and his party’s–manifest faults, Brown is still the most powerful professed socialist in the developed world, a man who, when he reminds his party that “health-care should not be a commodity to be bought by some but a right to be enjoyed by all,” expects them to applaud. His spirited performance at the party conference showed that he is still capable of a few surprises; delegates who came to bury him stayed to praise. Whether he can produce a miracle sufficient to ward off electoral disaster is another question. But for the moment, at least, Brown has his reprieve, if not yet his resurrection.   D.D. GUTTENPLAN


As we commemorate

Banned Books Week

in early October, we are reminded of the many attempts to restrict our right to read. Nearly 400 challenges filed at schools and libraries were reported in 2007, most probably constituting a fraction of incidents nationwide. This year’s banned-book focal point goes back to 1996 in Wasilla, Alaska, when the director of the local public library,

Mary Ellen Emmons

, received at least three requests from the newly elected mayor asking whether Emmons would object to censoring books. When the mayor raised the issue at a City Council meeting, town resident

Anne Kilkenny

told the Anchorage Daily News, Emmons responded, “The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.”

Emmons was supported by a particularly strong library reconsideration policy that states, “This library holds censorship to be a purely individual matter and declares that–while anyone is free to reject for himself books and other materials of which he does not approve–he cannot exercise this right of censorship to restrict the freedom of others.”

Fortunately, no titles were removed from the library, but shortly after the incident, the mayor sent a termination letter to Emmons and other city officials, charging them with failure to support the new mayor. In the public uproar that followed, citizens rallied around their popular librarian, resulting in her reinstatement. All this would now be forgotten, except that the mayor,

Sarah Palin

, is now a candidate for vice president of the United States.

Back in 1996, the local newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, reported that Mayor Palin explained her inquiries as “rhetorical” and “simply part of a policy discussion with a department head ‘about understanding and following administration agendas.'” Yet at about the same time, Palin’s church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, pushed to remove the book Pastor, I Am Gay from local bookstores. Around the time of Palin’s inquiries, school libraries in Alaska also received challenges to books like Go Ask Alice and Daddy’s Roommate, a book that helps children understand homosexuality. When

Laura Chase

, Palin’s first mayoral campaign manager, asked if she had read the book, Palin responded that “she didn’t need to read that stuff.” Chase now says she finds it “disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.” In the end, Palin did not succeed in her crusade.

When we observe Banned Books Week, we celebrate heroes like the former librarian of Wasilla, whose courage represents a measure of freedom. Fortunately, in public libraries across the country, books, hated by some but loved by others, remain on the shelves because of the dedication and commitment of librarians like Mary Ellen Emmons, who proudly uphold their principles even when called upon to stand up to those who bully and abuse power.   NANCY KRANICH